Years of exporting plastic waste abroad masked actual U.S. contribution to plastic pollution crisis.
A study published today in the journal Science Advances has revealed that the United States ranks as high as third among countries contributing to coastal plastic pollution when taking into account its scrap plastic exports as well as the latest figures on illegal dumping and littering in the country. The new research challenges the once-held assumption that the United States is adequately “managing” – that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling or otherwise containing – its plastic waste. A previous study using 2010 data that did not account for plastic scrap exports had ranked the United States 20th, globally, in its contribution to ocean plastic pollution from mismanaged waste.
Using plastic waste generation data from 2016 – the latest available global numbers – scientists from Sea Education Association, DSM Environmental Services, University of Georgia, and Ocean Conservancy calculated that more than half of all plastics collected for recycling (1.99 million metric tons of 3.91 million metric tons collected) in the United States were shipped abroad. Of this, 88% of exports went to countries struggling to effectively manage, recycle, or dispose of plastics; and between 15-25% was low-value or contaminated, meaning it was effectively unrecyclable. Taking these factors into account, the researchers estimated that up to 1 million metric tons of U.S.-generated plastic waste ended up polluting the environment beyond its own borders.
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